NFL teams are always mining rounds two and three of the draft for under-the-radar gems with the potential to wear multiple hats and create turnovers in the secondary. Oregon safety Verone McKinley III has the tools and proven pedigree to be one of those players in this year’s class after playing a crucial role for Oregon’s defense in 2021. McKinley recently spoke exclusively with The Draft Network about his impressive career at Oregon, growing up in Texas, why he gets his hands on the football so often, taking on a leadership role in 2021, his relationship with Seattle Seahawks superstar safety Jamal Adams, and why he’ll make an instant impact at the next level. JM: You were born and raised in Texas and attended high school at Hebron in Texas. What was it like going from Texas to Oregon? The two states couldn’t be any more different. VMIII: It was definitely different as you said. Eugene is a very different place when compared to Dallas (laughs). For me, I wanted to attend college in a true college town and that’s exactly what Eugene is. That played a big role in my decision-making process. Oregon has so many fantastic connections. I’m talking about the likes of Phil Knight, Ahmad Rashad, Tinker Hatfield, and so many others. I felt like it was a place where I could go and achieve things both on and off the field. JM: And you did just that. When I turn the tape on, one of the things that jump out at me about your game is your ability to create turnovers. You leave Oregon with 11 career interceptions in what was essentially three seasons. You had another great year taking the ball away in 2021. What is it about your game that allows you to be around the ball so often? VMIII: First and foremost, I played wide receiver in high school. A lot of people don’t know that about me. Being able to catch the ball comes second nature to me. I have excellent ball skills. I have to credit my preparation and overall abilities as well. I have a high understanding of where I’m supposed to be at all times. I’m able to judge where the quarterback is going to throw the ball before he releases it. This year, I really wanted to showcase my ability to play in the middle of the field and I believe I did that. I can better judge and track the flight of the ball that way. I was able to help our outside corners that way. That’s a big part of my game and how I’ve been able to create some of those interceptions and takeaways. JM: Oregon used you in a variety of roles. You played as a split zone safety and you’ve also shown the ability to play man coverage in the slot. What can you tell me about Oregon’s defensive scheme and how they utilized you? VMIII: My biggest role was to serve as the general of the defense. I had to be able to wear multiple hats and play everywhere. I had to play man-to-man on slot receivers and tight ends. I also came down into the box and fit some gaps. I was used as a blitzer at times. Of course, I had to play single-high safety and some two-high as well. I basically had to be that versatile safety for our defense. I did a little bit of everything. I was able to display all of that. At the end of the day, I was called upon to make plays while living around the football. I was expected to fly around and have fun out there. I was getting guys lined up. I take pride in making sure everybody on our defense knew what they had to do. We had a lot of great players defensively such as Mykael Wright, Noah Sewell, D.J. James, and of course, Kayvon Thibodeaux. We had a lot of different guys and talents. Getting everything organized was a big part of my responsibilities. JM: You’re bringing me to my next question. Oregon has had a ton of talent in the defensive backfield as of late. The 2020 draft class had four draftees in Deommodore Lenoir, Thomas Graham Jr, Jevon Holland, and Brady Breeze. What was the biggest lesson you learned from sharing the field and locker room with all of those NFL-level talents? VMIII: I was the younger guy that didn’t have as much experience when I first stepped onto the field. I was able to sit back, watch, and learn from their mistakes. I used that to my advantage in a way. It also gave me that confidence. I deserved to be on the field because I worked for it and I earned it. I’m a playmaker at the end of the day. I tried to put all of that together and let it showcase itself on Saturdays. One guy you left out was Ugo Amadi. He taught me the ropes during my redshirt year. He showed me how to practice and how to conduct myself like a professional. It helped me learn what to look for when preparing for an upcoming opponent. All of those things went into my performance and overall development as a player. They taught me how to prepare. JM: On the flip side, none of those guys were there in 2021. You had to step up and become that leader that you alluded to. How did you handle those newfound responsibilities? VMIII: I took it very seriously. I also realized that we had some guys opt out of the 2020 season. We dealt with a ton of uncertainties. Somebody had to step up and I said why not me? Why not be that guy to step up and lead the defense, lead the team? When that happened, I knew I had to step into a new role. We needed somebody that was going to come in prepared every day and I was more than willing. After I got that first year under my belt, I had to take that next step. I felt like I further established myself in Year 2. I had more confidence. I’m good at this and I know what I’m doing. That’s the attitude I developed. I wanted to be dominant in 2021 and I feel like I achieved everything I set out to achieve. My leadership played a large role. I didn’t want to be a leader that just talked about leading. I wanted to lead by example by putting in the extra work and by investing in the development of my teammates. I wanted everybody to understand what was going on. It all came full circle for me. JM: It absolutely did as you established yourself as a leader on the defense. What’s your favorite aspect of playing the safety position? VMIII: I love being in control. That’s probably my favorite aspect of it. I was making the adjustments and checks whenever necessary. Playing for coach [Mario] Cristobal and some of the defensive coordinators I played under throughout my time there, they always allowed me to have input on what I felt like the checks should be and so on. I had a lot of freedom on the back end with certain calls and whatnot. That’s the most fun part. I had the trust of my teammates and my coaches. I could make adjustments if I saw something that I felt didn’t put us in a good position. I was allowed to do that. That’s my favorite aspect of playing safety. JM: We’ve talked a lot about your ball skills and versatile skill set. What are some of your other strengths that we perhaps glossed over? On the flip side, which areas of your game are you still working to improve? VMIII: I would point to my body control as a general strength. I can come downhill and make tackles. I’m able to change angles within the tackling process and I control my body well mid-flight when the ball’s already in the air. I’m able to track the ball and contort my body as needed. I can also use my speed to get over the top of opposing receivers. As far as what I’m working on, I’m always working hard to improve every aspect of my game. I’m never going to be a finished product. I still have room to grow every single aspect of my game. I can’t just work on one thing and neglect everything else. I want to become a complete, balanced player. The goal is to always work on every phase of my skill set. JM: If you could pick the brain of any safety in the NFL, who would you choose and why? VMIII: I’m really close with Jamal Adams. I’ve been picking his brain for years. He’s like a big brother to me. Besides him, I would have to say Tyrann Mathieu. He would probably top my list because I feel like my game is somewhat similar to his. He’s been in the business for quite some time now. He’s been an All-Pro. He’s one of the best safeties in the game. He’s made multiple Pro Bowls. He makes plays and he’s always around the football. I would love to pick his brain because he’s super smart and understands the game at such a high level. He’s very athletic as well. He’s just a playmaker at the end of the day. JM: Those are two great choices. How did the relationship with Jamal Adams come about? VMIII: I was probably in the sixth grade. Adams and I actually have the same defensive backs trainer. He took me under his wing when I was younger. We used to work out a lot together and whatnot. That’s how we initially began building our relationship and friendship. He’s somebody I was lucky enough to watch grow into the amazing player and person he is today. He’s always been a supporter of mine. He’s another terrific resource that’s in my corner and rooting for me to win. He’s helped me in so many ways. I love picking his brain. JM: We love to hear that. I’ve really appreciated your time today. What kind of impact is Verone McKinley III going to make at the next level? VMIII: I’m going to make an immediate impact. I want to be a Pro-Bowl, All-Pro type of player. For me, it’s about coming in and earning the trust of my teammates and coaches, especially my coaches. I have to earn their trust first and foremost. I can’t wait to fly around out there and knock some receivers around. I’m gonna make plays and have fun. I wanna create interceptions and make plays for my defense. It all comes down to making plays and winning football games. Whatever role I can take on immediately, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m all about getting better and helping the team.
- Jun 24, 2022
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